The short-lived, fiberglass-bodied Kaiser Darrin was perhaps the most distinctive product of Henry Kaiser’s decade-long adventure in Detroit — it was also one of the last. This week, we look at the birth and death of the Kaiser Darrin, the short history of the Henry J on which it was based, and the final collaboration between the great industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and dashing automotive designer Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin.
HENRY KAISER VS. DETROIT
We talked at length about Henry Kaiser’s career in our earlier article on Kaiser-Frazer, but a brief recap seems in order. Originally from a small town in upstate New York, Kaiser had risen from very modest beginnings to become an industrial titan: builder of the Hoover Dam, architect of a formidable shipbuilding enterprise, founder of the pioneering Permanente Health Plan and clinics (known today as Kaiser Permanente), and more.
In 1945, at the age of 63, Kaiser decided to try his hand at the auto business, launching the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation in partnership with Detroit veteran Joseph W. Frazer. Together, they leased the massive Willow Run bomber factory near Ypsilanti, Michigan, and tried to challenge Detroit at its own game.
After an early flush of success in the booming postwar years, things began to turn sour for Kaiser-Frazer, the result of inadequate capital, unrealistic expectations, and a rapidly cooling marketplace. Joe Frazer was effectively ousted in 1949, leaving the company’s operations to Henry Kaiser, Henry’s son Edgar, and a board dominated by Kaiser loyalists. As the fifties dawned, it seemed that Henry Kaiser might finally have overextended himself. Still, the Kaisers were preparing a second offensive with an inexpensive new compact sedan and a new full-size model designed by stylist Howard Darrin.
THE ADVENTURES OF DUTCH DARRIN
Unlike Henry Kaiser, Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin grew up in affluent surroundings; he was born in 1897 to a well-to-do New Jersey family with an interest in the American Switch Company. Although Darrin evinced an early interest in automobiles, his initial plans involved a career in electrical engineering, beginning with an internship at Westinghouse before World War I. When the United States entered the war, Darrin set those ambitions aside to become a pilot, joining the Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and later helping to establish a short-lived commercial air service called Aero Limited.
Darrin’s entrée into the automotive design field came in a roundabout way. In the early twenties, he approached the design firm LeBaron Carrossiers in hopes of selling a pair of Delage chassis he had recently acquired. Darrin befriended LeBaron co-founder Thomas Hibbard and shortly afterward either accompanied or encountered Hibbard on a business trip to Paris in spring 1923. Recognizing that business was booming and labor was cheap in Europe, the two soon decided to start their own Parisian company, Carrosserie Hibbard et Darrin.
The new firm quickly became a success. In 1926, they set up their own factory in Puteaux, a Parisian suburb, and secured a commission from Rolls-Royce to offer factory-approved bodies for French customers. In October 1929, Hibbard and Darrin established their first U.S. showroom in New York City.
The firm’s prospects looked good, but business quickly dried up following the stock market crash on October 29. By the end of 1930, Hibbard et Darrin was overextended and close to bankruptcy, so the following January, Darrin and Hibbard decided to shut down their operations and go their separate ways. Hibbard went back to the U.S., but Darrin wanted to remain in Paris, so he found a new partner in Argentine financier J. Fernandez, owner of Carrosserie Fernandez et Cie. As the economy slowly recovered, their new venture, Darrin et Fernandez, enjoyed several reasonably successful years, offering bodies for high-end European makes like Delage and Hispano-Suiza.
With fears of a new war in Europe, business was once again waning by the late thirties. In 1937, Darrin returned to the States and resettled in Hollywood, where he leased a space on Sunset Boulevard. Tall and debonair, Darrin had always cut a striking figure and he made the most of his Parisian sophisticate image. His mercurial temperament was no great handicap in Hollywood and his proximity to posh Hollywood night spots like Romanoff’s, Ciro’s, and the Trocadero helped him to court wealthy customers like actress Rosalind Russell, actor-crooner Dick Powell, and singer Al Jolson. Some customers, like actors Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, later became Darrin’s close friends.
In 1939, Darrin convinced Packard chairman Alvan Macauley to authorize a factory-catalogued, semi-custom Packard Darrin, which became in numerical terms one of the most successful products Darrin had yet developed. In 1940, Packard also offered Darrin $10,000 to develop a rival to Cadillac’s popular Sixty Special, which became the basis for the 1941 Packard Clipper, although Darrin later alleged that he was never actually paid.
America’s entry into the war put Darrin temporarily out of business, so in 1943 he returned to the Army as a flight school field commander. By 1945, however, he was back in a new shop on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, doing private commissions. Joseph Frazer, then the president of Graham-Paige, hired Darrin to develop a postwar Graham-Paige car and later commissioned him to create a scale model of a Frazer car to support Kaiser-Frazer’s initial public offering.
After the incorporation of Kaiser-Frazer, Darrin’s design became — with many revisions with which he had no involvement and of which he did not approve — the first 1947 Frazer. Hoping to capitalize on the prewar glamour of Darrin’s name, Kaiser-Frazer added “Styled by Darrin” badges to its early cars, although Darrin objected, dissatisfied with the changes the company had made to his design. The badges were deleted in 1948.
Meanwhile, an acquaintance of Darrin’s, the investment broker Charles Schwartz, introduced Darrin to the Lehman Brothers, New York investment bankers and the owners of a prominent department store chain. The Lehman Brothers, who had almost underwritten the Kaiser-Frazer IPO (and were indirectly responsible for Kaiser-Frazer adopting Darrin’s design for production), made a deal with Darrin to develop a car of his own, which was to be marketed through Lehman Brothers retail stores.
In 1946, Darrin told the press that he envisioned two models, both powered by an L-head Continental six: a compact, selling for around $2,000, and a long-wheelbase, midsize sedan, selling for around $2,800. Both were technically advanced, featuring torsion bar suspension, hydraulic power assists, and a fiberglass body made by Hayes Manufacturing Co. Darrin said he anticipated a total volume of 30,000 units a year — at least 20 times the combined production of all his previous custom and semi-custom cars. Unfortunately, raw materials were still in short supply at the end of the war and molding the fiberglass body proved to be more difficult than expected. The project collapsed and only a single prototype convertible was ever built. Darrin shopped the concept elsewhere, but it came to nothing.
In early 1948, Darrin returned to Kaiser-Frazer, winning a competition with Brooks Stevens Design Associates and K-F’s internal styling team to develop the 1951 Kaiser.